Well this picture has been sitting here without a comment or an explanation. Time to write. This photo was taken on a day when we needed to have some fun. So, we took some time to have lunch at the Highland Springs Lavender Farm in Cherry Valley. It makes me laugh because we look like aliens visiting this farmscape of ball shaped plants. It may seem odd to start a blog at the end of something, but experience gives you more to write about.
SunnysideLOCAL Produce and Nursery has now been operating as a business since April, 2010. Although our fancy accounting spreadsheet reveals the reality, Jane and I feel the year has been a success. Our year of success has little to do with money and everything to do with the people that came into our lives over the past nine months.
Our first crop of summer vegetable plants was ready for sale in April and we made the decision to sell at the High Desert Farmers Market at Victor Valley College. April weather in Victorville can be fickle and ferocious. Because of Victorville, I added the Weather Channel’s Farmer Forecast to my computer Favorite bar. On the day we were scheduled for our first market, the farmer forecast called for wind, all day. Unfazed and oblivious I headed up the Cajon Pass with a truckload of tender heirloom tomato plants, herbs, and other succulent summer transplants. Did I mention that the vendor bylaws for this market REQUIRE that you bring 25 pounds of weight per leg of your EZ-up structure? On this particular day I learned why. When I pulled into the market parking lot I was filled with excitement and anticipation and completely blind to the fact that everything not tethered down was already flapping uncontrollably. I met with the market manager and was assigned to a spot. My spot! SunnysideLOCAL had a spot. As I walked back to unload my stuff I started to realize how cold and windy it was. Jane hadn’t arrived yet so I started to unload the hard scape of selling. EZ-up, tables, movable wire storage rack, buckets of freshly picked citrus. I struggled in the wind to set up the shade structure. Another vendor thankfully offered help. Luckily, I had heeded the market bylaws and staked the structure legs in and threw large bags of soil over the stakes for weight. Then it was time to take out the babies I had nurtured for over two months. Two hundred spectacular heirloom tomato transplants were waiting under the tarp. I pulled two flats from under their protection and in a few seconds realized the wind was blowing them sideways. I put the flats under the car to see if this would help. Not a big difference.
A twinge of worry slipped through my mind. Most people want to buy plants that grow straight up, not sideways. Shredded leaves don’t tend to be a great selling point. What to do? At that moment the voice of experience spoke to me. It was Vincent, the vendor set up across from me. Vincent, I learned, is from Calabria, Italy. His thick accent and welcoming nature were wonderfully obvious. Vincent knew wind. He was a seasoned market veteran with a long history at this Victor Valley location. “We call it the W-word up here,” he said. Like not calling it’s name could keep it at bay. He said morning was the calmest and the —- would probably only get stronger from here. At mid-sentence there was a shudder like sound of a sail filling with air. We both turned to see my EZ-up held to the earth by only one stake. He knew wind and he knew how to take down an EZ-up fast. “Don’t sacrifice your plants, he said. Come back next week.” We did. We had a great spring season at the High Desert Farmers Market.
Hundreds of free pots from Fireman Mike
The high desert turned out to be a great source of growing supplies for the nursery component of our business. While purchasing 15 and 20 gallon pots for our La Colina branch of SunnysideLOCAL, I was given the lead on a man who recently bought an organic nursery. He wanted to sell the property and had inherited hundreds of tons of pristine organic compost. Mike is a local fireman in Victorville/Apple Valley and was selling his compost for $25 a truck bed load. An amazing deal!!! Throughout the spring, we visited Mike two more times. On those visits he refused payment and offered us as many plastic pots as we could fit into the truck bed. FOR FREE!! We owe Mike huge debt of gratitude for his kindness and encouragement. His contributions helped us to stay true to our SunnysideLOCAL philosophy of growing organically and sustainably.
- SunnysideLOCAL Farmstand
As our plant/produce mix shifted we set up a stand on Sunnyside Avenue. If you want to meet your neighbors, set up a farmstand. Our street is an early morning pathway for joggers, dog walkers, garage salers, bikers, moped riders, you name it. Sunnyside Avenue is a charming, serpentine street lined with the most heavenly scent of citrus. Many of our groves have one hundred year old trees with a water supply system that dates back to the 1880’s. If you were wondering, our mountain water is what makes the fruit taste so good. Throughout the summer we had many conversations at this spot on Sunnyside Avenue. Some stories were very personal. We would leave the stand feeling, no matter how small, we were doing something worthwhile.
In July, the biodynamic growing techniques paid off with a great crop of healthy, colorful, tasty, heirloom tomatoes. Jane and I made the decision to apply for a spot at Redlands Saturday Farmers Market. During this time SunnysideLOCAL, overflowing with citrus, berries and summer stone fruit, entered the jam making business. My friend, Carole Inman, of Kool Kactus Cafe, had listened to my dreams of a business for years. When I presented her with a description of a product line of sustainably grown, pesticide-free jams she generously offered to arrange time in her kitchen. We became licensed in her space and soon after “Summer in a Jar” peach jam became the customer favorite of the summer.
At the Redlands Saturday Market we met Cindy who was our first customer every Saturday. We learned about the Slow Food movement and just how much people really do care about how food is produced. Roberto Argiro made us feel good when he complimented our Valencia Orange Marmalade. As weeks passed, we discovered a community of knowledgeable and generous farmers who were passionate about responsible growing and quality produce. Redlands is lucky to have a city council that supports not one, but two direct selling market opportunities for farmers.
So much was new this year that it almost felt out of control at times. Business is like a web. Many elements are connected. In order to grow we knew we needed a structure and a business model. In April we made a sale of tomatoes and basil, that would effect our bottom line more than anticipated. Remember the windy, high desert market day that failed? On that day instead of going home after the trip down the Cajon Pass, Jane called me to stop in her old Buena Vista neighborhood. Our friend, Joy Manesiotis, wanted to buy some of our tomato plants. Joy was our first official customer and great supporter. Upon seeing our stock, she called many of her neighbors and we ended up selling, Depression era style, off the back of the truck. One of those customers was Mara Winick, professor of business at University of Redlands. In October, Mara contacted us with a proposal to participate in a yearly project that she sets up for her third year business students. Within the structure of this project a local business is assigned to a student team. The team then ventures to asscss all aspects of the current business and provide its owners with recommendations that will help to strengthen and grow the business. Danny, Judit, Garrett and Cody have been our trusty foursome for the last several weeks. I have been struck by their professionalism and enthusiasm. SunnysideLOCAL has already made improvements based on their research and comments. We receive our final presentation Thursday, December 16 along with their business class peers.
So. This is a fraction of events in the year of SunnysideLOCAL. There have been frustrations, sleepless nights, sore muscles, personal tribulations and debt. Even with those things it has been an extremely bountiful harvest.